The city of Macau, perched on a tiny peninsula just off the Chinese region of Guangdong, is a unique amalgamation of East and West. A Portuguese colony from the mid-sixteenth century to the dawn of the twenty-first, it Macau has found prosperity through glamorous casinos and international tourism. Although the sheer density of Macau seems overwhelming, its numerous museums and galleries offer a way into its fascinating history and culture.
There is no better introduction to Macau’s unique history and culture than a trip to the Macau Museum. Situated in the stuccoed seventeenth-century Fortaleza do Monte in the heart of the Portuguese fortifications, the museum’s three floors cover the city’s diverse history, from its time as a small fishing port to its contemporary boom. Particularly fascinating is the floor devoted to the popular art and traditions of the island, which features ornate Chinese shadow puppets and finely detailed fans. Recent temporary exhibitions have included Michele Ruggieri’s early maps of China, international chinoiserie, and a show situating the nineteenth-century British photographer John Thomson alongside his modern follower Wong Ho Sang. After exploring the collections, take a stroll in the tranquil garden for a panoramic view of the city.
The Macau Museum of Art is the region’s largest gallery of local art, displaying historical and contemporary works from Macau and Southern China. Chinese calligraphy and ceramics sit alongside Western paintings and photography, and the contemporary art galleries have a focus on the city’s unique culture. Whilst the permanent displays are regionally focused, the temporary exhibitions have a global purview, with recent subjects including Picasso’s prints, Qing dynasty painting, and pre-colonial Mexican art. The Culture Centre in which the gallery is located also hosts a lively array of events, including opera, theatre, and concerts.
St. Paul’s Cathedral, built by Jesuit settlers in the sixteenth century, was Macau’s largest and grandest church before an 1835 typhoon set it ablaze. Although the magnificent five-tiered façade is all that survives above ground of the original complex this museum preserves objects from the colony’s Catholic history. While the collection focuses on silver liturgical objects and intricately carved crucifixes, the highlight is perhaps a portrait of St. Michael modeled on a Japanese Jesuit, the only work to survive the cathedral’s destruction. The adjacent crypt houses the bones of Vietnamese and Japanese martyrs, and a granite tomb thought to belong to Father Alexander Valignano, the Italian missionary who founded both the cathedral and its attached college.
Zheng Guanying, famed as one of the most important reformers and writers of late Qing China, was also part of a long dynasty of merchants based in Macau. This complex of houses, in which he wrote his masterpiece Words of Warning in Times of Prosperity, is the most magnificent example in the region of a traditional Guangdong family residence. Its sixty-odd rooms, grouped around a series of courtyards, fuse Chinese conventions with Western and Indian ornamentations. The main hall’s French windows sit below an ornate Chinese beamed ceiling, while the open-air corridors with their round moon doors give the museum an enchanting, labyrinthine aura.
The Lou Lim Ioc Garden, modeled on those in Suzhou, is one of the Macau’s most serene and beauteous green spaces and the perfect backdrop for the Tea Culture House, which is located within a miraculously accurate neo-colonial house. For centuries Macau was the primary entrepôt – a port that where merchandise can be sold without duties – for tea, and so one of the most important gateways by which Chinese tea culture spread to the West. The displays here recount both the history of this trade and the Chinese traditions of tea drinking, alongside displays of antique teapots and cups. Regular exhibitions display both historical and contemporary artworks that relate to the precious brew. The museum runs monthly lectures on tea culture and regularly holds tasting evenings focused on specific strains of tea.
It’s worth visiting this gallery simply to see its building, a 1920s baroque mansion with exuberant Moorish touches that feels like something out of a dream. Named for the wealthy Tap Seac district in which it stands, it is likely the best contemporary art gallery in Macau. Although it has no permanent holdings, recent exhibitions have covered everything from Jean Baudrillard’s photography to Polish film poster design, alongside a range of Portuguese and Chinese artists. The gallery is also home to the annual Macau Visual Arts Exhibition, which every summer displays the work of around sixty local artists chosen by an expert panel.
Maritime Museum of Macau exterior | Courtesy Maritime Museum of Macau
Standing on the Largo de Senado, the main square of Macau’s historic centre, the UNESCO-listed Santa Casa Di Misericordia is an extravagant baroque edifice that looks more akin to a palace than a former orphanage. It now contains a small museum exhibiting precious objects from its history, including ancient Chinese manuscripts, ivory statues and the relics of Macau’s first bishop. After browsing the collection, visitors can sit on the alluring colonnaded balcony and look down across the elegant plaza below. For those enthused by Macau’s missionary history, the nearby St. Dominic’s Church and the aforementioned Museum of Sacred Art both hold similar assemblages of liturgical objects.
Macau’s location on the Pearl River Delta was a key foundation for its mercantile prosperity. The Maritime Museum, situated on the spot where the first Portuguese explorers arrived in 1553, pays tribute to the sea’s crucial role in the city’s history. Housed in a modern building designed to evoke a ship, the museum’s three floors deal with the ethnography, history, and technology of the sea, and exhibits include a whalebone replica of a dragon boat, a model of the seventeenth-century city and a range of nautical instruments. Four large aquarium tanks depict the area’s diverse marine life, while the esplanade outside offers excellent views of the harbour.
With permanent exhibitions devoted to tea, wine, and the Grand Prix, it’s safe to say that Macau is a haven for those interested in intensely specific collections. Nothing in the city, though, is quite as eccentric as this surprisingly large museum, which is attached to an electronic hardware shop. Sound of the Century presents ‘vintage sound machines’, whether those specifically tied to music like gramophones and recorders, or simply devices with a sonic side-effect such as fans. Most curious are the displays of pre-electronic methods of recording music, such as music boxes.